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Only a Colombian could get away with wearing a pink anorak and a cowboy hat. But somehow the jeep driver in Salento pulled this off and managed to look pretty damn good. He also had a moustache, a rather a grumpy look about him and a silver horse on the front of his jeep. But I wasn’t going to question his taste or mood, he was driving and I was holding on for dear life.
I didn’t have the luxury of a seat for this journey. Instead I had to stand on a small set of metal bars on the back of the jeep and hold onto whatever I could as we bumped along the roads to the Cauca Valley.

This was one of the most beautiful sections of my journey to date. I had travelled by bus from Bogotá to Salento along the winding roads of the Quindío Valley and it was as impressive as I had hoped.
Paul Theroux said: “I had seen nothing to compare with this, well, rude magnificence of nature.”
The valley dipped and turned and our bus chugged along the road, squeezing past concrete houses and shacks which were impossibly pinned to the side of the mountain, ready to topple off at any moment.
This part of the world did not look to have changed since Paul Theroux’s visit.
He commented: “I saw no people venturing out, it looked as though they would simply fall down as soon as they left their front doors.”
It seemed madness for people to live in such an inconvenient place. But perhaps the stunning beauty of the place itself made up for its difficulties, clouds dipped into the valley and the terrifying heights and chasms took my breath away.
The bus struggled and during the gear changes I could see straight into people’s front rooms, mothers cooking dinner, children playing and even a couple laying in bed. It felt odd to be able to stare into these people’s lives at such close quarters, but I supposed they must have been used to it.

Back on the jeep in Salento my grip was loosening as an American spoke to me about how safe it was to get into Ecuador overland.
“It’s fine, there is nothing to worry about, I did it not so long ago, its fine as long as you go during the day. Well it’s fine… most of the time.”
His comments were not ringing true with me and I wondered (correctly) what this man’s idea of ‘fine’ was as far as safety was concerned.
He continued; “Well it’s mostly fine, although I met some girls recently who took the bus during the day and it was held up by some robbers, they shot some bullets through the driver’s window and it was only because a lady on the bus called her brother in the military that they were all rescued, otherwise they would have been robbed and maybe taken hostage. But really it will be fine.”

I had been debating on the safety of crossing this border overland for a few days as FARC’s second in command had just been killed. The American’s story made my mind up, I would fly, as it would be the safest option. (Although the irony of this decision became apparent later when I flew into Quito and a political coup).
After my jeep ride to the Cauca Valley and a stroll amongst the beautiful cloud forests, it was time to move on. Paul took a train from Armenia to Cali, and as usual I discovered this train had not been running for some years. However there was a train that ran from nearby La Tebaida to Cali. Fabulous I thought. But after much questioning and umming and eerring from various locals/travel agents and tourism ’experts’ I discovered this train no longer ran either.

My quest to travel by train through the America’s as Paul Theroux once had was turning into a distant dream. Each country I visited I held new hope of finding the rail system still vaguely in tact or being renewed, but sadly so far I was told that governments were planning to improve/resurrect the rail systems, but had just…well… not quite got around to it.

So it was that I found myself on yet another bumpy bus, this time the road followed the old train tracks for the entire trip, crossing them at some points as I headed towards Cali, Colombia’s salsa capital.

Dancing is not something that I can do unless I am fairly inebriated and so it was with a slight amount of fear that I headed to Tin Tin Deo, Cali’s salsa hotspot on a Thursday night.
The club looked like a fairly normal place: slightly dim, posters and neon lights adorning the walls, tables and chairs scattered around. What was not ‘normal,’ not from my experience anyway, was the dancing. I had only ever seen this calibre of dancing on the television.
It seemed the locals of Cali had some serious moves. As each new song started up guys grabbed girls and they hit the dance floor, with vigour, their fancy footwork as they twisted and turned was difficult enough to watch never mind emulate.
I sat rooted to my seat, mouth slightly agape at the fantastic show in front of me. The cheer and enthusiasm coming from the dance floor was contagious and the club got busier and busier.
One of the more impressive dancers sauntered over and asked me to join him, I muttered an embarrassed ‘no thank you’ as I took the decision to stay firmly where I was. Suddenly I was very aware of my Englishness. Salsa was just not in my blood and there would be no chance I could even start to get involved without some hideously embarrassing consequences, or was that just my English paranoia stopping me from letting loose?
I played it safe, ordered another beer and enjoyed the dancing from the safety of my seat, while pondering on whether it was worth going to bed as I only had four hours before my flight took off for Quito, Ecuador.

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For a moment I thought I was at home; a cup of tea in one hand, cricket on the radio and a contented feeling. But this unusual peace was soon disturbed by a din outside, I looked down onto the street to see a very strange sight. A young man was enthusiastically playing an accordion, not so unusual for a Colombian street, but his audience was rather out of the ordinary: A group of about 20 armed policemen. They were dancing and singing around the accordion player, snapping photos of each other with their guns swinging precariously from side to side as they gyrated.
Ah yes, I’m in Bogotá I remembered and sipped my tea whilst watching the shenanigans below.

I was staying in an area of Bogotá called La Macarena (yes like the dance) with a journalist friend named Jon and his wife Susi. Their apartment was opposite the police station where apparently these sights were very common.
“We’ve seen them in dressing up costumes before, zebras, lions, bears, quite amusing.” Jon told me.
“But don’t be fooled they look a good bit scarier dressed up in all their riot gear.”

Police and military were everywhere in Bogotá and as far as I could tell not many of them looked older than about 22, but they were all toting huge guns and attempting to look menacing, well when they were not dancing around, texting their girlfriends or listening to their iPods. I couldn’t decide whether to be scared or laugh.

Bogotá has certainly changed since Paul Theroux’s visit. He was upset by the number of homeless street children he encountered and spent his time staggering from church to church, suffering from the altitude.
The altitude, luckily, did not affect me and there were far fewer homeless than in Paul’s day, although apparently far more drug dealers.
There seemed to be a plethora of memory stick/usb sellers every few metres as I strolled down Calle 7, I needed a usb so entered into a conversation with one of the men, but rather than a straightforward transaction things got very complicated, it was too much for my limited Spanish so I walked on, later learning that his usbs were only a front for selling cocaine. I saw a good many shoelace sellers on the streets also and pondered on their technique for selling cocaine if this was also a front. Did the length of the shoelace you purchased represent the amount or strength of cocaine you required?

When I had got my bearings I took a walk to the train station. The last piece of track on the line from Santa Marta to Bogotá was still being used for a Turistren and I was determined to investigate. I managed to purchase tickets for the steam train, which departed on Sunday, but before I left I was treated to some traditional Colombian hospitality in the form of… a Welsh pub.

Edgar, the pubs owner, had married a Colombian lady he had met in Spain, 40 years ago. The couple had lived in Bogotá for most of their lives, but I’m pretty sure Edgar still missed his homeland as he had created an authentic Welsh pub in his lounge room. The strange thing was it even smelled like a pub, photos of Wales and old issues of Mersey beat adorned the walls and a welcome glass of wine was placed in my hand. The situation felt rather surreal as Edgar regaled me with tales of his youth in London and Wales while several other ex pats arrived to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
It was as if I had been transported to Wales itself and I wasn’t sure if I was happy with that.

The next day saw the Turistren chuffing out of Bogotá’s La Sabana station. It really was a tourist train and any hopes I had of finding a real passenger train still running in Colombia faded into the distance with each raucous band that passed through our train carriage.
Despite this it was a great day out, topped off by a visit to a real country fair in one of the local villages. Bands warbled on the makeshift stage and men on horses paraded nearby. There was even a float parade, but to me it looked rather like several battered pick-up trucks camouflaged in various bits of tree.

The conversation in Bogotá had been very enjoyable, I was happy not to have to explain where I had travelled to or from or discuss the merits of how cheap my accommodation was or for how many years I had been on the road.
On the train to Bogotá Paul Theroux was plagued by a Frenchman with a sore throat who extolled to him the virtues of getting the bus because it was cheaper. This is a very common travellers boast and also a most tiresome one.
With these thoughts in mind I packed my bag and prepared to hit the road again. This time with plans to lie entirely about myself, my trip and the cost of my accommodation the next time an inquisitive traveller thought to ask, which was in fact on the way out of Bogotá as I headed southwest towards the Quindo pass.

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Sitting forward in my seat seemed a good idea after being wedged into the back of the Brasilia bus 6022. What I didn’t realise was that I had relinquished my elbow room for good and the leathery faced Colombian to my right looked very happy about this, as he stretched into his newfound space.

Despite my discomfort the views of the Eastern Cordilleras were breathtaking, lush green mountains reflected cloud shadows in the mid-afternoon sun, while farmers in ponchos tended to their animals and crops. We passed a town named Barbosa where I was taunted by a glimpse of an old steam engine, now merely a decoration on the side of the busy main road.

Rather than go straight to Bogotá I had decided to break the 20-hour bus journey with a stop in Villa De Leiva, a picture perfect Spanish colonial town in the Colombian Highlands.
After my creaking bones had recovered from the bus ordeal I got chatting to Oscar, owner of the pretty little hostel where I was staying. He was an ecologist turned eco-tour guide and had previously worked at the Humboldt institute, the most important environment research organisation in Colombia.
“I collected 1,700 spiders in total before giving the entire collection to the institute” he told me.
After years studying spiders Oscar wanted a change and moved into tourism, a shift that has not been easy for him given Colombia’s reputation.
“We have been open seven years, the first two were very hard, we barely had two visitors a week” he paused and made an eerie tumbleweed-like whistling noise before smiling:
“But in the last year or so tourism all over the country has improved.”

According to Oscar and several other Colombians I spoke to the former President Alvaro Uribe poured a huge amount of money into the army, making the country safer for both inhabitants and tourists alike. One particularly enthusiastic toothless Pontiac driver, who gave me a lift back to town one day after I missed the last bus, spent the whole journey explaining to me how much he loved Uribe and now Juan Manuel Santos, while smiling and gesticulating wildly. Although I struggled to follow the detail of his conversation as I was so terrified of his erratic driving on the tiny mountain roads and the total lack of car suspension.
This certainly differed from the first political opinion I had heard, but made perfect sense. The drug dealer on Cartagena’s streets did not like Santos, who takes a very hard-line on both guerrillas and drugs. But the poorer people in the countryside, more affected by the guerrillas and drugs, are all for Santos and his hard-line.
A sign in Oscar’s hostel explained that buying cocaine would be tantamount to having blood on your hands, as most of the countries drugs are now controlled by guerrillas.

Back on the bus and fearing for my life once more we bumped along the mountain roads to Bogotá, past a huge monument to Bolivar’s great victory at the battle of Boyacá, which finally assured the liberation of the country from the Spaniards in 1819. The monument and park was guarded of course by numerous police and army brandishing huge guns.
I was reminded of Paul Theroux’s thoughts when he was forced to leave the train a few miles from Bogotá and finish the journey by road: “We went for the last few miles in an old bus, skidding on the rain-slick mountain roads. For the first time on this trip I felt I was in mortal danger.”
My bus driver insisted on overtaking everything in sight, regardless of if we were on a narrow corner or not, which was most unnerving. The temperature dropped as we climbed higher into the grey clouds and towards the city.
I was feeling rather excited about this part of my journey as I was to be staying with a journalist friend in Bogotá; a comfy bed and home cooked meal awaited my arrival.

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Walking around the headlands near Santa Marta I heard the distinct “poooop poooooop” of a trains whistle. I stopped, rooted to the spot, “pooop pooooooop”. I wondered for a minute if my ears were playing tricks on me, but then the sound came again. It was without a doubt a train.

So far I had only been in Santa Marta for a day and had yet to locate the station, the debilitating heat was stopping me from thinking never mind moving, but all of the people I had asked told me there was no train, one even told me this as we were standing next to the train tracks.
Santa Marta had not inspired me, I had been there for only a few minutes when I stumbled on what I like to think was a man sleeping in the street, he was also bleeding, heavily. Only centimetres away from him were people sat around on their plastic chairs, drinking beer. I shuddered and felt torn between trying to help the man and running away, I chose to walk away, swiftly. An uncomfortable feeling descended on me which I could not shake so I decided to stay just outside Santa Marta in a fishing village named Taganga.

Once a sleepy place Taganga had suffered an influx of tourists in the past five years and the plethora of hostels, dive schools and eateries reflected this. Despite this Taganga was a very pleasant place to stay, on a picturesque bay surrounded by tropical green mountains and speckled with fishing boats.
After a stroll around the town which involved negotiating the rubble piles that passed for roads and trying my utmost not to trip or stub my toes, I discovered a cosy café which sold great coffee and chocolate muffins. I got talking to it’s Swedish owner: “The train is just for cargo now, bananas and coal I think.”
I asked him my chances of being able to perhaps bribe my way onto the train.
“Not a chance, I really don’t think so, why don’t you just take the bus or fly?”
The Swede, who had already annoyed me by trying to tell me exactly which places I should and shouldn’t visit in Colombia and then regaled me with tales of his drunkenness made me even more determined to get on the train.

I decided to head to the station to investigate for myself. I approached a taxi driver, who looked rather sinister with a side parting that started at his ear and sunglasses which said ‘police’ on the left lens, he looked confused when I explained where I wanted to go. After a fair amount of persuasion and haggling he agreed and we were on our way. A bumpy ten minutes later the driver pointed at some tall concrete walls, topped with razor wire and a guard tower.
This was the most heavily guarded train station I had ever seen.
I strode purposely towards the office and bent down to speak to the guard through a tiny space between the glass and bars.
“Excuse me, is it possible to take the train from here to Bogotá?” I asked.
The huge security guard and his friend starting laughing and when he had recovered he slowly started shaking his head. “Mucho problemo, mucho problemo. Los siento, no.”
I went on to explain I was a writer and about my blog, but these explanations fell on deaf ears. I asked if I could go into the station and take a picture and received the same answer but with a grumpier and more forceful tone.
Finally I asked if I could take a picture of the station from the outside, it seemed this may have tested the guards patience.
“No, my boss, the president will not allow this and neither will I, mucho problemo, mucho problemo.” he almost shouted.
All of this time out of the corner of my eye I had noticed more and more armed security guards appearing out of nowhere, looking interested in my conversation.
I decided that whatever was inside that station I was not going to get to see or photograph, so before anything of a scary nature occurred I cut my losses and jumped back into my waiting taxi. The sinister driver seemed to be enjoying the debacle and took great joy in speeding away from the station and on the way out I snapped a couple of illicit pictures praying that the huge security guards and his armed friends had not spotted me.

I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to take the bus to Bogotá, as the “Lux” Tayrona, with sleeper, diner, 1st class coaches and motorcar transport (as described in Cook’s Timetable in the seventies) certainly no longers exists. As we drove through the streets of Santa Marta the taxi swerved to avoid a man sprawled out on the road one shoe on, one off, looking less than healthy. It was the second time in 48 hours that I thought to myself: Is he napping? Or is he dead? I hoped this was not going to turn into some sick game on my long journey through Latin America. My uncomfortable feeling reappeared and I felt obliged to retreat to the nearest bar for solace.

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I’d been on Colombian soil for about 23 minutes when someone in the street offered me cocaine. I turned the tables on the chap, who was wearing an inconspicuous green t-shirt decorated with marijuana leaves, and asked him about the political situation in Colombia as I had just been handed a leaflet about a demonstration.
“Mucho corruption, mucho corruption.” he said (second Colombian stereotype in under half an hour). He claimed that 80% of the population don’t like the new president, Juan Manuel Santos. He seemed unhappy that Santos had reinstated ties with Hugo Chavez. Interesting though his opinion was, I’m not sure if his percentages were to be trusted, was it 80% of the people or was it the 80% cocaine he was trying to sell me that he was talking about? I think I’ll speak to a few other people in Colombia before taking his opinion for gospel.

Paul Theroux’s first stop in Colombia was Barranquilla an “inconvenient and filthy rat-hole” two hours to the north of Cartagena, where he was stuck for some days during the national senatorial elections. Even Paul himself could not say why he had flown there, he escaped and did some sightseeing in Cartagena as soon as it was safe to leave, before taking the train from Santa Marta to Bogotá.

“It is boredom and idleness that motivate sightseers” says Paul about his look around Cartagena. His restless mood took him to Hotel Bolivar, where he wrote a letter to his wife and then took a stroll around the town. Hotel Bolivar no longer exists and no amount of questioning could lead me to its former building. I was directed to: Plaza de Bolivar, Tienda de Bolivar, a Statue of Bolivar and numerous other Bolivar-related places but not Hotel Bolivar, the closest I came to some real information about its whereabouts was from a guy who said: “That hotel closed 6 years ago but I’m not sure where it was.”

My stroll around Cartagena’s old town took me past the best the city had to offer in Spanish colonial architecture, all in various states of (dis)repair, the buildings give the city a real European air. People were peddling to the tourists every direction you looked, bracelets, bags and even phone calls were up for grabs. I was intrigued by the women sat next to boxes with mobile phones on them – attached by string, charging passers-by to call their loved ones. A version of the pay-phone I had not seen before. There was no sign of the second-hand tool shops that Paul saw on his walk around town, I think these have moved to the park, where after initially thinking I was being threatened by a man with a screwdriver I realised he was actually trying to sell me some tools, in a slightly menacing manner.

Despite being a beautiful city I was keen to get moving to Santa Marta and find out the truth about the train, as Cooks Oversea’s Timetable was lacking in specific details (see previous blog post). I took a bus to Santa Marta, the road had not changed a great deal since the seventies, it was still littered with “pitiful” huts, now punctuated with concrete slab shop buildings with ill-fitting windows and brightly painted signs, all with stray dogs and bored looking locals on plastic chairs sitting outside them.

Staring at the huts and shops was preferable to looking at the road, which was beyond chaotic, huge numbers of scooters and motorbikes fought for road space with buses, trucks and cars and the incessant beeping did nothing to calm my frayed nerves. “The worst drive since leaving Vancouver” the Swedish couple on the motorbike told me when I bumped into them on the street. I felt secretly pleased it was not just me with my heart in my mouth on that particular road.

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It was 6am in the morning and I was squashed into a 4WD with several other travellers all bound for Colombia. We bumped along the dirt roads to El Porvenir through the stunning mountains of the Darien before being dropped at a river bank and taken in long, thin, brightly painted row boats to the Stahlratte, a beautiful 40 metre sailboat.
I have to admit I was a little nervous about this part of my journey. I’m not a big fan of sailing, nor of large groups of people in contained spaces that you cannot escape from: boats, school, work, prisons, that type of scenario. Making polite conversation whilst trying not to be seasick would certainly not be my idea of fun. In fact making polite small talk full stop is not my strongpoint. But this was the best way to get to Colombia and I decided that a larger sailboat with more people could be better than one of the smaller ones on offer. There might be a few people I could communicate with out of 20 on The Stahlratte, if I was on a boat of six and they were all irritating Mr Thornberrys I would be putting my mental health in danger. So I braced and boarded the boat, wishing I’d had a pre-printed T-shirt made up stating my name, my travelling status (ie how many months I’d been on the road) and my plans for where I was going next, oh and a bullet pointed list of the top 5 highlights of my trip so far.
So with all 20 people on board and four crew we set off for the San Blaas islands, where we were to moor up for two nights before sailing on to Cartagena.
As the boat chugged out of El Porvenir (by motor, no wind for the sails) and into the San Blaas archipelago, it felt as though we had reached paradise and my earlier worries started to fade. The aqua blue ocean was dotted with hundreds of white sandy islands covered by palm trees. The region is owned by The Kuna people, who have autonomy over the Sand Blaas, which consists of hundreds of islands, one for every day of the year I was told. Despite the choice the Kuna live on only a handful of these islands as they hold strong community bonds and like to stay close to each other.
Our captain Ludwig, has been visiting the islands for years and knows the Kuna and their ways well. We had been moored for a while when a loud trumpet call came up from a neighbouring island and we could see some Kuna wrestling a huge fish out of the water and into one of their narrow rowboats. Some of our crew went over to investigate and our dinner soon appeared on the deck with a loud thump; the biggest fish I had ever seen, a huge Grouper, all for $30 and a couple of beers.
Ludwig started gutting the fish and at the same time told me about the boat: “It used to be like a commune on here, free love that sort of thing. But people got bored with that so now we’ve put the boat to different uses. We do this journey for a while and then later in the year we travel to Cuba.”
What a great life, I thought, providing you don’t get seasick as many of the passengers did the next day (unfortunately including myself).
Ludwig continued: I’ve been on this boat for 17 years it’s not only my home, it’s like I’m part of the boat, kind of like the keel or something.”
The Stahlratte has certainly had an interesting life, as well as being a commune and a tourist boat it has been chartered out to various environmental agencies, from 1996 – 1999 it was a Greenpeace vessel and has also been used by The World Wildlife Fund.
The two days we spent moored up consisted of swimming, eating and chatting (or avoiding chatting) to others onboard the boat. My journey seemed rather unadventurous compared to that of some on the ship: a couple who were cycling from Canada to Argentina, a Canadian on a motorbike doing the same, a couple from Sweden riding the Americas and a chap from Stoke-on-Trent.
My trip to follow in Paul Theroux’s footsteps seemed to pale into insignificance and as I muttered about trying to find trains and explain about The Old Patagonian Express, the people listening seemed mildly bemused, which rather annoyingly left me feeling bemused and I started pondering on how I could potentially make the whole affair slightly more radical or risky in order to compete with these tales of excitement.
After 28 hours at sea I awoke at 5.30am to see the cloudy skyline of Cartagena coming into view. Not quite what I was expecting, lines of skyscrapers on the horizon. New hotels and offices hiding ‘the jewel of Cartagena’ – its old town which was just visible behind the high rises as we rounded the corner into the harbour. It was an exciting way to first see a country and seemed so much more natural than stumbling out of an airport dazed and confused. Now all we had to do was wait for passport control to let us off the boat and I was certainly keen to disembark. I felt that one more travel tale around the dinner table might just finish me off.

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